EXCLUSIVE | Key Gupta lieutenant Iqbal Sharma arrested in connection with failed Estina dairy project

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Ajay and Atul Gupta.
Ajay and Atul Gupta.
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  • The Vrede dairy farm cost the taxpayers R288 million, with the bulk of the money allegedly funnelled to the Guptas and their related companies.
  • Iqbal Sharma is a businessman with close ties to the Guptas; he also served on the board of Transnet during the state capture era.
  • News24 understands that three other former senior Free State government officials, linked to the dairy project, have been nabbed.

Iqbal Sharma, a businessman and key associate of the controversial Gupta family, has been arrested in connection with the failed R288 million Estina dairy project in Vrede, in the Free State.

News24 understands that Sharma will appear in the Bloemfontein Magistrate's Court on Thursday to face charges of fraud and money laundering.

Sharma is alleged to be one of kingpins of the Gupta network, which allegedly saw the looting of billions from state-owned enterprises and government departments through shady business deals.

READ | Free State pays legal fees for Estina dairy farm accused

The National Prosecuting Authority's Investigating Directorate (ID) said in a statement, "The ID can confirm that a high-profile businessman has been arrested along with three former Free State Department of Agriculture officials this morning [Wednesday].

"The group were arrested in the Free State, Gauteng and Mpumalanga, and will appear in the Bloemfontein Magistrate's Court tomorrow [Thursday], 2 June 2021, at 09:00. The arrest of a fifth suspect is imminent."

iqbal sharma
Iqbal Sharma.

News24 understands the other three people arrested during the operation are Peter Thabethe, Dr Limakatso Moorosi and Seipati Dlamini.

Moorosi and Thabethe are former heads of the Department of Agriculture in the Free State, and Dlamini was the department's chief financial officer. 

Empowering

The Free-State government had conceived the Vrede Integrated Project as a state-of-the-art dairy farm, which would have produced over 100 kilolitres of milk per day. The project was aimed at empowering local people and dairy farmers.

READ | State Capture Inquiry: Our divorce has nothing to do with my testimony - Norma Mngoma

However, it later transpired that all the money paid to Estina were allegedly laundered through a series of bank accounts, seemingly ending up with the Gupta brothers - Ajay, Atul and Rajesh. 

The Gupta brothers, close friends and associates of former president Jacob Zuma, fled the country in 2018 and are reportedly in the United Arab Emirates.

Sharma was a key player on the board of Transnet during the state capture era and a partner of Salim Essa, who was the Guptas' principal business lieutenant.

A senior police official close to the Estina investigation confirmed to News24 that Sharma was arrested this morning.

This is a developing story.

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